The Roar
The Roar


The most famous football clubs in Australia: Part I

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
27th May, 2014
2813 Reads

The other day I made a reference to Port Adelaide being one of the most famous football clubs in Australia.

This got me thinking about whether there might be a way to assess such a claim across all four football codes.

First and foremost, I wanted to come up with a set of criteria which was verifiable.

These are the criteria I ended up deciding on, and the point scoring system I have attached to each:

As a general rule, the longer a club has survived and thrived in the top tier of its code, the more fame is likely to attach to that club. As a cut-off, I considered only those leagues and clubs which have existed since before WWII.

For every complete decade a club has managed to survive, I have attached one point. So the founding clubs of the NSWRL have completed 10 full decades, and therefore earn 10 points each.

As the old saying goes, gold begets gold. Fame, fortune and a large following will always attach themselves furiously to successful teams. In this criterion, I am focusing on the main titles won at either national level, or at state level, focusing on those competitions that have run for longer than 75 years, and continue to run today in whatever guise.

I give one point for each title, but I have to apply some rules for those periods where a state competition has morphed into a national competition and the like. These are explained below.

It’s pointless making claims to fame if you don’t have the supporter base to back it up. Over time, the supporter bases of clubs can wax and wane, but for the purposes of this exercise I am looking at today’s support, and I am measuring that by the latest membership count. Such figures are easily found for the AFL and NRL clubs, but are a bit more difficult for clubs from state-based leagues.


I attach one point for each 5000 members. For the smaller state-based clubs, I assume a membership of 5000 or less and they all score the solitary point.

In determining how I recognise premierships, I have gone by the following rules for each code:

Australian Football
• VFA premierships count before the club in question entered the VFL.
• All VFL, SANFL and WAFL premierships count, with the following limitations: WAFL premierships count up until the second Western Australia team entered the AFL (pre-1995) and SANFL premierships count up until the second South Australia team entered the AFL (pre-1997).
• In the case of those teams that remained in the VFA from inception, their premierships count up to the point that the VFA merged with the VSFL in 2000 to form the new VFL. The reasoning here is that from 1897 onwards, the VFA was a state-based football competition which ran for many decades in competition with the VFL.

Rugby League
• The NRL is viewed as a continuation of the NSWRL and all premierships going back to 1908 are counted.
• Even though Souths experienced a hiatus for a few seasons, the club is viewed as having existed on a continuous basis the whole way through.
• Merged clubs are viewed as brand new entities and therefore are not considered. This has the greatest effect on St George – so I will need to cover them in a future special mentions article.

Rugby Union
• All premierships won in the Queensland Rugby Union and NSWRU are counted right up to 1995, after which Super Rugby was established, and thus became the top level of club rugby in Australia.
• I view the Waratahs and Reds as state representative sides in the pre-1995 era, and thus they do not meet my criteria. Once again, I will have to cover both in my future special mentions article.

Unfortunately, football presented me with a bit of a quandary because I couldn’t find any evidence of pre-war clubs surviving into the present day playing at the top level. The British clubs of the pre-war era in both Sydney and Melbourne appear to disappear post-war, their spots taken up by the emergence of new clubs, primarily from the immigration boom of the 1950s.

If any Roar readers are aware of any clubs I may have looked over, I would appreciate any information you can provide on that score. I will cover a few of the better known football clubs in my future special mentions article.

All in all, I think the end result is not too bad, although I am sure many will want to argue the toss.


I was originally aiming to present my most famous clubs in the one article, but soon realised that it was getting too big, so I have split it into three:
• First instalment – working backwards, the nine clubs ranked 11 to 19
• Second instalment – the top 10 clubs
• Third instalment – special mentions of famous clubs which did not meet my stringent.

So here’s part one, where I will work down from 19th place to 11th.

19. Sydney Roosters (Eastern Suburbs) – 26 points
Established: 1908
Premierships: 13
Membership: 14,489

The Roosters kick off our most famous football clubs in Australia. One of only two remaining original clubs from 1908, the Roosters manage to differentiate themselves from Souths by being the only club to have played every season of the comp since its inception.

Only Souths and St George have won more premierships. Easts’ 13 premierships include a hat-trick of premierships from 1911 to 1913. Easts’ memberships and attendances are not overly high, but they’ve done enough in more than 100 years to separate themselves from the also-rans in the famous football club stakes.

18. Williamstown Football Club – 28 points
Established: 1864
Premierships: 13 (12 pre-2000)
Membership: n/a

The Seagulls are a very long-lived footy club, and not just in Australian terms. They entered the VFA in 1884 and have played continuously in that competition ever since. Willy managed a hat-trick of premierships from 1954-1956 – also winning five in six years over the same period.

To show how close the VFA was to the VFL once upon a time, in the 1930s and 1940s Willy recruited some big names from the VFL, such as Harry Vallence, Ron Todd and Des Fothergill. In 2000 the VFA became the VFL, effectively a reserve-grade competition for the Victorian AFL sides.


Curious fact: in that first season of 2000, Williamstown’s opening game was against Collingwood, the first time the two clubs had played a home-and-away game against each other in 104 years.

17. Port Melbourne Football Club – 30 points
Established: 1874
Premierships: 16 (15 pre-2000)
Membership: n/a

Port Melbourne, also known as the Borough, entered the VFA in 1886 and has played in that competition ever since. It almost joined the break-away VFL in 1897, but it’s spot was given over to St Kilda. I expect Port would have fared a bit better had they got the nod.

Port won a hat-trick of premierships from 1980 to 1982, capping off a stellar decade. This was a time when the VFA was televised on free-to-air on Sundays into Melbourne homes and was relatively popular. As one of the more successful teams during this time, Port featured often, especially at finals time, and players such as Fred Cook became household names.

16. Sydney University Football Club – 31 points
Established: 1863
Premierships: 24 (15 pre-1995)
Membership: n/a

Sydney Uni is an interesting addition to our list. They are known as Sydney University Football Club because they were the very first club to play any code of football in NSW. It is the oldest club now playing rugby in Australia – so the students definitely get full points for longevity.

Sydney Uni was a founding member of the Sydney club competition in 1874. In recent times, Sydney Uni has absolutely dominated the Shute Shield, having won nine premierships of the last 13 seasons. Their impressive haul of premierships also includes a hat-trick from 1953 to 1955.

Over 100 uni players have been selected as Wallabies, with their most famous son being the legendary Nick Farr-Jones.


15. Sydney Swans – 32 points
Established 1874
Premierships: 5 in the AFL/VFL; five in the VFA
Membership: 36,370

It’s now well known that a down-and-out South Melbourne Football Club was sent packing in 1982 to the Harbour City when the club was on its knees in financial terms. At the time, this was not a well thought-out plan, but the VFL management of the day had half an idea that some good would eventually come out of it.

And it has.

The Swans were the VFL’s first tentative steps towards the national competition we see today, and while Australian Football might still be viewed as the poorer cousin of the four football codes in Australia’s largest city, the Swans’ numbers in terms of memberships and attendances are quite impressive.

14. Melbourne Football Club – 33 points
Established: 1859
Premierships: 12
Membership: 34,819

Given the Demons’ recent woes on and off the field, it’s easy to forget Melbourne’s long, proud history. It is the oldest football club in Australia, and one of the oldest in the world. The club goes back to the very dawn of Australian Football, when some MCC members drafted the first set of rules in a nearby Richmond pub.

But it’s not just the longevity of the club. While Melbourne may have failed to win a premiership in the last 50 years, it won 12 up to 1964, including two sets of hat-tricks: 1939 to 1941 and 1955 to 1957. From 1955 to 1960, the club won five premierships, and unsurprisingly, at the time it was a well-followed club.

Melbourne still holds the record home-and-away attendance, with 99,346, versus Collingwood, in 1958.


11. Tie – South Sydney Rabbitohs, Richmond Football Club and Hawthorn Football Club – 36 points

South Sydney
Established: 1908
Premierships: 20
Membership: 28,535

Souths is one of two founding clubs of the NSWRL still in the competition – the other is Easts. Souths has won the most memberships of any other club, and that fact alone makes it all the more perplexing why they were excluded from the competition following the Super League war. Fortunately they were allowed back in, much to the relief of the majority of Australian sports fans.

Souths has not won a premiership since 1971, meaning those 20 premierships all came within a 53-year block. All the more impressive when you consider that inside that time period, St George managed to win 11 consecutive titles.

With the help of some Hollywood gold dust, Souths has experienced a renaissance of sorts the last few years, and while they are still waiting to break the long premiership drought, off the field they boast a more than healthy 28,500-plus membership, making them number one in the comp on that score as well.

Richmond Football Club
Established: 1885
Premierships: 10 in the AFL/VFL – two in the VFA
Membership: 64,516

Richmond was part of the VFL’s first attempt at expansion, entering the competition in 1908. They waited 12 years to win their first premiership. Their halcyon days were from the late 1960s through the 1970s, winning five premierships from 1967 to 1980, but alas, they have not won one since.

Despite that, and despite some depressingly lean times over the last 25 years, the Tiger army has shown no sign of slowing in growth. I put it down to the emblem and one of the best clubs songs doing the rounds.


Hawthorn Football Club
Established: 1902
Premierships: 11
Memberships: 66,864

Hawthorn is a relative newcomer in Australian Football terms, and was one of the three clubs which joined the VFL in 1925 – the other two being North Melbourne and Footscray.

The Hawks endured a very lean 35 years upon joining, but broke through for their first premiership in 1961 and went on to win a further eight from 1971 to 1991. They have tasted more premiership success over the last five years, and with the addition of support from Tasmania, has grown its membership base to be the second largest in the AFL.

Stayed tuned for my next instalment, where we count down the top ten.